Local communities have concerns with governor’s Empire State Trail proposal
By Riley Bunch
As a little girl, Regina Place grew up with the Erie Canal as her playground. She ice skated on the canal her Irish ancestors helped build and, over the years, her son ran on the trail, too. Now, the Places maintain the trail that once nurtured their family.
They also care take a park that holds a memorial for Place’s late son, who passed away in 2010.
“In the warmer months I spend six to 10 hours a week maintaining and expanding the gardens,” Place said. “I engage in conversation with passersby who are all complimentary of the beauty and serenity of that area. There is something nearly mystical about this beautiful part of our environment. I bike ride the trail with some frequency and just love the safety and beauty that is the Erie Canal.”
The historic landmark does not only supply residents throughout Central New York as a hub of outdoor activities, but holds importance too many generations of families.
On the 200th year anniversary of the building of the Erie Canal in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed the creation of a 750-mile multi-use Empire State Trail, connecting communities across the state from Lake Erie to the Capital Region and the New York Harbor to Canada.
The trail network is anticipated to be the largest state multi-use trail network in the nation.
The proposal includes building of 350 new miles of trails and in three-phases creating a complete pathway across the state for hiking and biking through the New York landscape.
Cuomo predicts the project will not only provide strong community connections but will increase tourism and economic activity in these communities.
“The scenic natural beauty that spans every corner of this state is key to our prosperity, vital to our future and part of who we are as New Yorkers,” said Cuomo during the unveiling of the proposal. “The Empire State Trail, once completed, will be the nation’s largest state multi-use trail network, providing residents and visitors alike unprecedented access to New York’s outdoor treasures, driving tourism and economic activity to communities across the state and helping to protect our environmental resources for generations to come.”
According to the governor’s office, each year, approximately 1.5 million people use the Erie Canalway trail, generating an estimated $253 million in economic activity from visitor spending. Ever $1 million invested is expected to support an estimated 9.6 jobs.
Similar to the Erie Canal trails, the Hudson River Valley Greenway, nearly 50 percent complete, generates more than $21 million in economic impact annually from visitors stopping in communities along the trails.
By 2020, both trail systems will be complete and connected creating the Empire State Trail.
The proposal laid out Cuomo suggests the paving of a majority of the 750-mile trail with black-top, which has led to concern within Central New York communities.
“Paving the trail is an undesirable, unnecessary, and expensive project,” said Place in a letter she wrote to the Auburn Citizen. “Snowmobilers and cross country skiers reject the idea of blacktopping the trail because doing so hastens snow melt or allows for ice build-up.”
Place explained that part of the appeal of the Erie Canalway trail is the natural surface that entices runners, hikers and bikers who enjoy training on the terrain.
In many parts of the Erie Canalway trail, including Camillus, stone dust has always been used to create smoother paths while keeping a natural terrain. The community opted for stone dust over pavement originally due to its easy accessibility for all vehicles and simplicity to maintain.
David Beebe, volunteer director at Camillus Erie Canal Park and president of the Camillus Canal Society, expressed concern over maintence of new blacktop.
“[Stone dust] is gentle on the feet, wheelchairs and everyone else, bicycles they just love it,” said Beebe. “It’s so hard everyone can use it. Pavement is not so friendly and the real expense is when you have to replace it later on.”
According to a census conducted in 2011 by the Canal Corporation, 407,000 people and dogs were using the canal trails at that time. Beebe doesn’t see how blacktopping the trails would increase the number significantly.
“Blacktopping it, I don’t think will increase tourism,” said Beebe. “Our trails are fantastic, and they get used more and more.”
In a press release regarding Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, Parks and Trails of New York expressed excitement and support in the creation of the Empire State Trail by 2020.
“The Governor’s extraordinary announcement dovetails with the beginning of the Bicentennial of the Erie Canal and highlights the enduring importance of the waterway for tourism and recreation in Upstate New York,” said the organization.
However, Robin Dropkin, executive director of the Parks and Trails of New York considers the issue of paving trails with black-top to be a local decision.
Towns that own the sections of the canal trails that run through their borders have expressed no desire to install pavement that would need additional and expensive maintenance.
Mayor Richard Platten of the Village of Jordan has been approached by concerned residents about the proposal- runners’ who are not in favor of paving the trails.
“The concerns I have is that we have permitted the snowmobilers to traverse all throughout the towpath in the village of Jordan,” said Platten. “If that is paved, it won’t last long if we let the snow mobiles go through.”
The paving of the trails as a state mandate, allows the state to initially pave the trails with blacktop however they are not required to maintain it.
“We would have to maintain it, and we can’t,” said Platten. “I think it’s an expense that is not warranted. For our community I think it would be adverse to our wellbeing.”
Photo by Riley Bunch
The Erie Canal is in many ways the heart of some local communities. Under a proposal from the state, there are tentative plans for paving to further connect the canal system. This has raised concerns among area residents and officials.